Trump blames Iran for tanker attacks, stoking fears of confrontation

Still image taken from a video appears to show two tankers at sea, one of which has a large plume of dark smoke in the Gulf of Oman. PRESS TV/IRIB/via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi and Makini Brice

DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump blamed Iran on Friday for attacks on two oil tankers at the entrance to the Gulf despite Tehran’s denials, stoking fears of a confrontation in the vital oil shipping route.

Iran has dismissed earlier U.S. charges that it was behind Thursday’s attacks that crippled two tankers. It has previously suggested it could block the Strait of Hormuz, the main route out for Middle Eastern oil, if its own exports were halted.

Thursday’s blasts followed similar attacks a month earlier on four tankers, which Washington also blamed on Tehran.

They come at a time of escalating confrontation between the United States and Iran. Last month Washington sharply tightened sanctions against Tehran, which in response has threatened to step up its nuclear activity.

Asked how he planned to address Tehran and prevent any further incidents, Trump told Fox News: “We’re going to see.” He also said that any move to close the Strait of Hormuz would not last long.

Nevertheless, Trump, who last year pulled the United States out of an agreement between world powers and Tehran to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions, said that he was open to negotiations with Iran.

“We want to get them back to the table,” Trump said. “I’m ready when they are.” He added that he was in “no rush”.

Iran has repeatedly said it will not re-enter talks with the United States unless it reverses Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.

The U.S. military released a video on Thursday it said showed Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were behind the blasts that struck the Norwegian-owned Front Altair and the Japanese-owned Kokuka Courageous in the Gulf of Oman, at the mouth of the Gulf.

Iran said the video proved nothing and that it was being made into a scapegoat.

“These accusations are alarming,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.

Iran has accused the United States and its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates of “warmongering” by making accusations against it.

Tehran and Washington have both said they have no interest in starting a war. But this has done little to assuage concerns that the two arch-foes could stumble into a conflict.

Oil prices surged on Thursday, reflecting the jitters, although they have since given up some of those gains.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday the world could not afford “a major confrontation in the Gulf region”.

China, the European Union and others have called for restraint from all sides. In a notable signal that close U.S. allies are wary of Washington’s position, Germany said the U.S. video was not enough to apportion blame for Thursday’s attack.

The U.S. military said black-and-white footage it filmed from a U.S. aircraft showed Iran’s Guards on one of their patrol boats drawing up to the Kokuka Courageous and removing an unexploded limpet mine from its hull.

Britain said it took the matter “extremely seriously” and, if Iran was involved, “it is a deeply unwise escalation”.

The Japanese-owned tanker, abandoned by its crew, was being towed to a port in the United Arab Emirates on Friday, after a Dutch firm said it had been appointed to salvage the ships.

The second tanker, the Front Altair, which was set ablaze by a blast, was still languishing at sea, although the fire that had charred the hull had been put out.

“ALARMING”

Last month Washington revoked waivers that had allowed some countries to continue importing Iranian oil, effectively ordering all countries to blacklist Iran or face sanctions themselves.

Iran’s crude exports fell to about 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) in May from 2.5 million bpd in April 2018, starving Iran’s economy of its main source of revenues.

Iran says it is still abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal, but cannot do so indefinitely unless it receives some of the economic benefits that were promised. Last month it said it would boost enrichment of uranium, a move that could potentially lead to it building up a stockpile prohibited under the deal.

Washington has also blamed Iran or its proxies for attacks on May 12 that crippled four oil tankers in the same area, and has said Tehran was behind May 14 drone strikes on two Saudi oil-pumping stations. Tehran has denied all those charges.

There have been conflicting accounts of the cause of Thursday’s blasts. An initial report that Kokuka Courageous was struck by a torpedo was dismissed by a source familiar with the issue. The owner of the tanker, which carried methanol, later said it was hit by two “flying objects”.

A source has said a magnetic mine could have caused the explosion on Front Altair, which had a cargo of naphtha.

“UNWISE ESCALATION”

Iranian TV showed 23 crew in Iran believed to be from Front Altair on Friday, and said its experts would assess whether they could return to the ship. The crew from Kokuka Courageous were picked up and handed to a U.S. Navy ship on Thursday.

The Trump administration said in May it would send troops and other forces to the Middle East, citing Iranian threats, a move Tehran has called “psychological warfare”.

The administration argues that the nuclear deal, negotiated under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, was too limited, and says re-imposing sanctions will force Tehran back to the table to make more concessions.

Most U.S. allies in Europe and Asia disagree and say pulling out of the deal was a mistake that will empower hardliners in Iran and hurt the pragmatic faction that promised Iranians economic benefits in return for opening up to the world.

Thursday’s attack took place while Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan – a big buyer of Iranian oil until it was forced by the new U.S. sanctions to stop – was visiting Tehran on a peacemaking mission, bringing a message from Trump.

Iran dismissed Trump’s message, details of which were not made public. “I do not see Trump as worthy of any message exchange, and I do not have any reply for him, now or in future,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafez, Maher Chmaytelli and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai, Makini Brice, Susan Heavey, Phil Stewart and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Bart Meijer in Amsterdam; Victoria Klesty in Oslo; Writing by Edmund Blair and Peter Graff; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Gareth Jones)

Satellite images may show reprocessing activity at North Korea nuclear site: U.S. researchers

A view of what researchers of Beyond Parallel, a CSIS project, describe as specialized rail cars at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, in this commercial satellite image taken April 12, 2019 and released April 16, 2019. CSIS/Beyond Parallel/DigitalGlobe 2019 via REUTERS

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Satellite images from last week show movement at North Korea’s main nuclear site that could be associated with the reprocessing of radioactive material into bomb fuel, a U.S. think tank said on Tuesday.

Any new reprocessing activity would underscore the failure of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in late February to make progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report that satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site from April 12 showed five specialized railcars near its Uranium Enrichment Facility and Radiochemistry Laboratory.

It said their movement could indicate the transfer of radioactive material.

“In the past, these specialized railcars appear to have been associated with the movement of radioactive material or reprocessing campaigns.” the report said. “The current activity, along with their configurations, does not rule out their possible involvement in such activity, either before or after a reprocessing campaign.”

The U.S. State Department declined to comment on intelligence matters, but a source familiar with U.S. government assessments said that while U.S. experts thought the movements could possibly be related to reprocessing, they were doubtful it was significant nuclear activity.

Jenny Town, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center think tank, said that if reprocessing was taking place, it would be a significant given U.S.-North Korean talks in the past year and the failure to reach an agreement on the future of Yongbyon in Hanoi.

“Because there wasn’t an agreement with North Korea on Yongbyon, it would be interesting timing if they were to have started something so quickly after Hanoi,” she said.

Trump has met Kim twice in the past year to try to persuade him to abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States, but progress so far has been scant.

The Hanoi talks collapsed after Trump proposed a “big deal” in which sanctions on North Korea would be lifted if it handed over all its nuclear weapons and fissile material to the United States. He rejected partial denuclearization steps offered by Kim, which included an offer to dismantle Yongbyon.

Although Kim has maintained a freeze in missile and nuclear tests since 2017, U.S. officials say North Korea has continued to produce fissile material that can be processed for use in bombs.

Last month, a senior North Korean official warned that Kim might rethink the test freeze unless Washington made concessions.

Last week, Kim said the Hanoi breakdown raised the risks of reviving tensions, adding that he was only interested in meeting Trump again if the United States came with the right attitude.

Kim said he would wait “till the end of this year” for the United States to decide to be more flexible. On Monday, Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brushed aside this demand with Pompeo saying Kim should keep his promise to give up his nuclear weapons before then.

Town said any new reprocessing work at Yongbyon would emphasize the importance of the facility in North Korea’s nuclear program.

“It would underscore that it is an active facility that does increase North Korea’s fissile material stocks to increase its arsenal.”

A study by Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation released ahead of the Hanoi summit said North Korea had continued to produce bomb fuel in 2018 and may have produced enough in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal.

Experts have estimated the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal at anywhere between 20 and 60 warheads.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Tom Brown and Grant McCool)

North Korea says missile launch ‘self-defense’, U.S. demands action

A test-fire of strategic submarine-launched ballistic missile is seen in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – North Korea said on Tuesday its missile launches were “self-defense measures”, rejecting U.N. Security Council criticism of its weekend test, but the United States demanded international action against Pyongyang’s weapons programs.

North Korea’s ballistic missile firing on Sunday was its first direct challenge to the international community since U.S. President Donald Trump took office on Jan. 20.

The missile had a range of more than 2,000 kms (1,240 miles), according to South Korea’s intelligence agency. It reached an altitude of about 550 km and flew about 500 km towards Japan before splashing into the sea east of the Korean peninsula.

The U.N. Security Council on Monday denounced the launch, urging members to “redouble efforts” to enforce sanctions against the reclusive state, but gave no indications of any action it might take.

Han Tae Song, the new Ambassador of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the United Nations in Geneva, addressed the U.N.-backed Conference on Disarmament a day after taking up his post.

“The various test fires conducted by DPRK for building up self-defense capabilities are, with no exception, self-defense measures to protect national sovereignty and the safety of the people against direct threats by hostile forces,” Han told the 61-member-state forum.

“My delegation strongly rejects the latest statement of the U.N. Security Council and all U.N. resolutions against my country.”

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood said: “All efforts to advance North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities must cease,” adding: “If ever there were a situation that called for international collective action to ensure our mutual security, it is this.”

RESTRAINT

China, North Korea’s main ally, said the missile launch violated Security Council resolutions but called on all parties to “exercise restraint”. The way to defuse the situation was through dialogue, China said, calling for a return to talks.

U.S., Japanese and South Korean military officials held a teleconference on Monday in which they condemned the launch as “a clear violation” of multiple Security Council resolutions. The United States “reaffirmed its iron-clad security commitments” to South Korea and Japan, the Pentagon said.

Han said the divided Korean peninsula “remains the world’s biggest hotspot with a constant danger of war”. He condemned joint military exercises carried out annually by South Korea and the United States, as well as what he called “nuclear threats” and blackmail towards his country.

“It is the legitimate self-defense right of the sovereign state to possess strong deterrence to cope with such threat by hostile forces aimed at overthrowing the state and the socialist system,” he said.

South Korea’s Ambassador Choi Kyong-lim said the test showed “the unreasonable nature of the DPRK and their fanatical obsession with the pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles”. Japan’s disarmament Ambassador Nobushige Takamizawa urged Pyongyang not to take further “provocative actions” that undermine peace and security in the region.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

North Korea appears to have restarted plutonium reactor: think tank

North Korea's Scientific center where they may be producing plutonium for nuclear weapons

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – New commercial satellite imagery indicates North Korea has resumed operation of a reactor at its main nuclear site used to produce plutonium for its nuclear weapons program, a U.S. think tank said on Friday.

Washington’s 38 North North Korea monitoring project said previous analysis from Jan. 18 showed signs that North Korea was preparing to restart the reactor at Yongbyon, having unloaded spent fuel rods for reprocessing to produce additional plutonium for its nuclear weapons stockpile.

“Imagery from January 22 shows a water plume (most probably warm) originating from the cooling water outlet of the reactor, an indication that the reactor is very likely operating,” it said in a report.

It said it was impossible to estimate at what power level the reactor was running, “although it may be considerable.” A 38 North Korea report last week said operations at the reactor had been suspended since late 2015.

North Korea has maintained its nuclear and missile programs in violation of repeated rounds of international sanctions.

News of the apparent reactor restart comes at a time of rising concern about North Korea’s weapons programs, which could present the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump with its first major crisis.

A report by leading U.S.-based nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker published by 38 North last September estimated North Korea had stockpiles of 32 to 54 kg (70 to 119 pounds) of plutonium, enough for 6 to 8 bombs, and had the capacity to produce 6 kg, or approximately one bomb’s worth, per year.

North Korea also produces highly enriched uranium for atomic bombs and would have sufficient fissile material for approximately 20 bombs by the end of last year, and the capacity to produce seven more a year, that report said.

In a New Year speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country was close to test launching an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and state media has said a launch could come at any time.

Trump’s defense secretary plans to visit Japan and South Korea next week and shared concerns about North Korea are expected to top his agenda.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Japan, South Korea sign preliminary intelligence-sharing pact on North Korea

Officer near Japan and South Korea flags

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan and South Korea signed a preliminary pact to share and safeguard sensitive information on North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities on Monday, a move that had already prompted anger among opposition lawmakers in Seoul.

The signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement had originally been expected in 2012, but South Korea postponed it amid domestic opposition against concluding such a security pact with Japan, a one-time colonial ruler.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that discussions in the third round of the talks had reached an agreement and that a provisional signing had taken place.

Discussions would continue ahead of a final signing, which Kyodo news agency said could take place by the end of November.

Reclusive North Korea, which is still technically at war with the South because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, has carried out repeated nuclear and missile tests in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions.

Tokyo’s ties with Seoul, plagued by a territorial dispute and Japan’s past military aggression, have warmed after reaching a landmark agreement last December to resolve the issue of Korean girls and women forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.

South Korean opposition parties had warned against signing the agreement, threatening to dismiss or impeach Defence Minister Han Min-koo.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Nick Macfie)